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March 4, 2010
This is the time of year when programs around the country wonder how they will spend the next couple of weeks. Forgive the players and coaches at New Orleans if they're more worried about where they're going to spend next season.
New Orleans' next loss will be its last as a Division I program.
University officials announced in December that the school, which is a public university, planned to drop its athletic programs to the Division III level starting in the 2010-11 school year. Student-athletes have the option of remaining at New Orleans on scholarship or transferring elsewhere.
New Orleans (8-21 overall, 3-15 in the Sun Belt) is the bottom seed in the Sun Belt tournament, which begins Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark. Unless the Privateers pull a miracle by earning the Sun Belt's automatic NCAA bid, this tournament will mark the end of an era for a program that reached the NCAA tournament or NIT nine times in an 11-season span from 1987-97.
"It's tough on the kids," said New Orleans coach Joe Pasternack, who is in his third season since replacing Buzz Williams, now at Marquette. "The unknown is the toughest part for the kids. They came here and really wanted to stay here. They thought this was where they'd spend their college careers when they signed their letters of intent. They thought this was the place they'd spend the next four years. Not to have any ability or control over that was very difficult.
"They're going through something no other college athlete will ever go through."
New Orleans officials believe they had little choice. The university's enrollment is about 11,750, down almost 30 percent from the 17,200 who attended the school before Hurricane Katrina. Each student pays a $100 fee per semester that serves as the athletic department's primary source of funding, so the reduced enrollment was devastating.
University spokesman Mike Rivault noted that the athletic department has run a deficit of more than $1 million each year since Katrina despite spending about half as much per year as most Division I non-football schools. The deficit was approaching $2 million for this school year when school officials were pondering the move to Division III.
University officials also had to scramble for ways to cut costs after the state issued three budget cuts totaling $16.8 million over the past 15 months. Last spring, the student body rejected an increase in the $100-per-semester athletic fee that might have helped UNO remain at the Division I level. Fifty-two percent of the students voted against an increase.
Pasternack was bothered by the timing of the decision. School officials told him on the eve of the fall signing period that his recruits should cancel their news conferences and not sign their letters of intent. Word had started to get around that New Orleans was pondering an exit from Division I. One month later, New Orleans officials formally announced their plans to move to Division III.
"We were told all along it wasn't going to drop down," Pasternack said. "And our kids were told that. When we were recruiting kids last year for this year's team, their parents' biggest question was, 'Is New Orleans going to Division II or Division III, or are you pulling the plug on the program?' We said we'd talked to the administration and it's not going to happen."
Pasternack didn't make players available to discuss the impending move because he wants them to focus on on-court matters. But a look at the results underscores how much the news wrecked the Privateers' season.
The Privateers were 5-2 when the LSU Board of Supervisors, the school's governing body, approved New Orleans' proposal to move to Division III. They've gone 3-19 since.
Part of the blame for New Orleans' slide goes to a knee injury that has sidelined leading scorer Billy Humphrey for the past two months. But it hasn't helped matters that the Privateers are playing out this season while wondering where they will be next season.
"When the news was announced, it was just a gut-punch," said Vanessa Papion, the godmother of sophomore guard Charles Carmouche. "It just took the air out of all of us."
Rivault admits the timing of the decision wasn't ideal and acknowledged that it had hurt morale around the athletic department, but he said the school had to take action immediately for the sake of its budget and its student-athletes. Rivault said if the school had postponed an announcement until the end of baseball season, it would have needed to remain in Division I for the 2010-11 school year and therefore accumulated even more debt.
He also noted that making the move to Division III midway through the school year gives UNO's student-athletes more time to decide their future plans. If they transfer, they won't have to sit out a year.
"The unfortunate thing is that all of this got pushed into such a short time frame," Rivault said. "We really felt we were in better financial shape for the beginning of this academic year than we were. When it came out in late October that we were projected to hit another almost $2 million deficit, it collapsed any time frame."
The news hit Pasternack, 32, particularly hard. He is from New Orleans and returned home to try to help the Privateers match the success they enjoyed in the 1980s and '90s. Pasternack, who was an assistant at California when he was hired, helped New Orleans win 19 games -- its highest total since 1997 -- in 2007-08. Now he finds himself at a career crossroads.
"I really thought going into our third year we were going to be able to turn this thing around and build a program," he said. "I wanted to do that here in New Orleans, where I'm from. It hasn't been able to happen. That's probably the hardest thing, just the effect it has on everybody else's life -- our players, our coaches."
Then again, many of them already have been through worse. Carmouche grew up in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina forced his family to evacuate. He went to Lafayette, La., and later to Houston before returning to New Orleans for his last two years of high school. He chose to stay in his hometown for college.
"He wanted to be home and to represent his city," Papion said. "He'd been away for a year after the storm. When he came back, he was driven to be in New Orleans. And he also had an opportunity to make an impact right away, an opportunity to play. And he liked what Coach Pasternack was putting together. It seemed to be a good fit."
Carmouche, a 6-foot-2 guard, now will have to find the right fit somewhere else. He is second on the team in scoring (12.3) and leads the team in rebounds (4.8). He wants to continue playing Division I basketball, even if that means leaving his hometown again.
"When the season is over, he'll just take a look at what's available to him at that time," Papion said. "We know he's definitely a Division I player; there's no way he'd remain and play Division III. We're confident he'll have some opportunities."
Carmouche's teammates also are wondering what opportunities await them. They arrived at New Orleans expecting to stay for four seasons. They may only have one game left.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.